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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Being Homeless in Reno


Image: Jose Oliveras.
The Wells Street Bridge homeless camp on Oct. 22. Since this picture was taken, the camp has been cleared out and the area has been fenced off. Photo by Jose Olivares.

By Jose Olivares

Homeless in Reno

When Kari Goodman spoke, it was obvious that the cold was not treating her well. Bundled up in a puffy, black jacket, sitting on the bus station bench and sipping from her thermos with a single black glove, she spoke of her situation and how she got there.

“I was actually dropped off in Reno. My boyfriend paid for two nights and I never saw him again. He said he was going to the bathroom; never saw him again. I’ve been stuck in Reno ever since.”

As Kari spoke, her brow curled in disdain and she placed sarcastic air quotes when mentioning the word “boyfriend.” Her black and gray hair quivered with the cold breeze.

“So it’s pretty much been between a shelter or the streets or wherever I can go,” she shrugged.

Kari and her current boyfriend Oscar Williams are a homeless couple in Reno. They were happy to speak of their situation and bring light to their experiences living among the commonly ignored population. As she spoke, she mentioned that she was very sick and had just been released from the hospital that morning at 2 a.m.

“I did everything I could to walk to Walmart because I had to fill my prescriptions. It hasn’t been easy,” Kari said. “You can almost sleep anywhere but with the cold it’s hard to stay warm. I’d really love a sleeping bag.”

Like other cities throughout the United States, Reno has been experiencing a silent, but significant shift with the homeless population. Homeless people have been recently evicted and removed from their various camps within the city; pushed to other locations.

This phenomenon is typically known as “gentrification.” Gentrification is commonly defined as the process of renewing or rebuilding urban areas to accommodate affluent, rich people, which in turn displaces poorer residents.

New Developments

Most recently, a huge controversial shift occurred in Reno under the Wells Street Bridge by 5th Street. On the morning of Oct. 22, City of Reno officials and police visited a large homeless camp situated under this bridge. They sprayed “No Trespassing” signs on the walls, brought two large dumpsters and presented an eviction notice to the tent-settled residents.

By Monday Oct. 26, police came, told the rest of the residents to leave and cleared the area.

Isa King is a homeless woman who was living under the bridge. Prior to the late-October eviction, she expressed her anger and frustration at the treatment of the homeless by the City of Reno officials.

“We don’t know where to go. Every place we go, they push us out,” King said. “So basically it’s out of sight, out of mind?”

When King moved from Nebraska to Reno, she only had a few items, a red corvette and her two dogs. She was running away from an abusive relationship with a roommate who had recently been released from prison.

After only a few days in The Biggest Little City, her car was stolen. The only things she had were the clothes on her back, her two dogs and a little bit of cash. King had found herself without a home and living by the Truckee River until she was forced to move under the bridge to take refuge from the rain.

“What are we supposed to do? Some of us are not out here because we want to be, we’re out here because we have to be. We have no choice,” King said. “They treat us like we’re substandard, just because down on luck.”

DSC_0024Isa King stands in front of her tent at the Wells Street Bridge homeless camp on Oct. 22. Photo by Jose Olivares.
Isa King stands in front of her tent at the Wells Street Bridge homeless camp on Oct. 22. Photo by Jose Olivares.

This homeless “tent city,” as it is sometimes referred to, was near various businesses, including Salon 7, The Daily Bagel, and Pigeon Head Brewery. A chain-link fence separated the homeless camp and Juniper Village, an apartment complex that was just built in April.

According to Phillip Brown, manager of Salon 7, the homeless residents never bothered their wide clientele.

“I don’t want to say that we’ve ever had any real problems with them. Except that it comes down to — it’s sad, because it’s people that have nowhere to go,” Brown said. “I’m sure it was more of a problem for than for us, and I’m sure it was more of a problem for the brewery than it was for us.”

Matthew Fleming is the Executive Director of Northern Nevada Community Housing. Juniper Village is an apartment complex that is run by NNCH. According to Fleming, the large homeless population that lived outside of the apartments presented many problems.

“We have a lot of children that live in this facility, and there’s a playground around 20 to 40 feet from where their encampment was,” said Fleming. Some of the problems that NNCH encountered included “indecent exposure, drug use, and sexual activity within a short distance of the children’s playground.”

NNCH is a nonprofit organization that develops, owns, and manages affordable housing for lower income and homeless people. However, Fleming states that when NNCH approached the homeless population under the bridge, they were met with hostility and strong refusal of their offer.
“We had to continually report to Code Enforcement the violations that were occurring,” said Fleming. “And then finally they came down and made some enforcements and cleared out the camp.”

It is not a hidden fact that a great deal of homeless people throughout the world suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five people experiencing homelessness suffer from mental illness and a similar percentage had chronic substance-use disorder.

How Did This Happen?

The expansion of businesses and economic growth in Reno has not been the main cause for gentrification against the homeless population. Some people may think that the recent growth of Midtown was the catalyst for the displacement of the homeless.

However, they would be incorrect.

“The thing about gentrification is that it’s a very long and complex process that doesn’t necessarily have a start date or an end date,” said Jeff Mitchell. Mitchell is an Adjunct Faculty Member of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has an extensive knowledge of the history of gentrification in Reno and has seen its progression through the years.

According to Mitchell, although gentrification is a long process with an intricate history, its most recent developments can be traced to around 2007 or the beginning of the housing crisis. He stressed that gentrification doesn’t just deal with homeless folks, but with lower income people in general.

“When the housing crisis struck Nevada — and it struck Nevada more than any other state in the Union — one in five houses were foreclosed on,” Mitchell said.

He said that multiple investors that still had large amounts of capital came to Reno and bought a lot of the foreclosed homes — almost entire city blocks of houses. These are people who don’t even live in Reno, own massive amounts of property, and are dictating rent prices without historical context of the area or any knowledge of the community.

This was performed in the Downtown and Midtown areas and ended up driving away the previous tenants. Higher income individuals then moved to these areas. With neighborhood revitalization programs to accommodate the new, affluent residents, new policies were introduced.

“As these things happened with the housing crisis and with the purchasing of large amounts of real estate by folks that weren’t around here, what we’re also seeing are increasingly draconian anti-homelessness policies,” said Mitchell. “It began with no loitering laws that have expanded from the downtown corridor, both west and east. And it’s continuing to happen with kind of not-so-on-the-books protocols like with what just happened underneath the Wells Street Bridge.”

The cleared and fenced off area under the Wells Street Bridge on Dec. 3. The Juniper Village can be seen in the background. Photo by Jose Olivares.
The cleared and fenced off area under the Wells Street Bridge on Dec. 3. The Juniper Village can be seen in the background. Photo by Jose Olivares.

Reno has a few laws that the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has criticized for being “anti-homeless.” There is an ordinance that made it illegal to sit or lie on a sidewalk in the Downtown Regional Center.

The city code also states that it is illegal to sleep in any park in Reno.

Paul McKenzie, Reno City Councilmember representing Ward 4, stated that these laws were put in place by the previous City Council in order to help Reno’s economy. According to McKenzie, allowing people to sit or lie on sidewalks can be considered loitering and can harm people’s experiences in Reno.

“This is a city that gets a large amount of tourist income and very detrimental to the tourist industry,” McKenzie said during a phone interview. “It makes tourists feel uncomfortable and with that discomfort people will not want to return to the city, and that’s not an environment that the previous Council wanted the city to have.”

Other Cities

Other cities throughout the United States have been taking drastically different measures to combat homelessness. “Housing First” programs have been very successful in cities that have taken this initiative. This approach, used most notably by Salt Lake City, Utah, involves literally just giving housing to the homeless, no strings attached.

It is as simple as it sounds. This program gives safe, secure housing before tackling any of the other problems that may contribute to homelessness, including substance abuse or mental illness.

After homeless people are housed, services are then offered to help them achieve health and stability. This is a sharp difference to previous housing approaches, which required participation in programs or mandatory sobriety before putting people in homes.

In 2005, Utah began its Housing First program to end homelessness. Since they started, the number of homeless people has decreased by 72 percent. Experts in the field now consider Housing First to be the best way to eradicate homelessness.

Housing First is not just effective, but cost efficient as well. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness claims that just one person experiencing homelessness can cost a community from $30,000 to $50,000 per year in emergency room visits, shelters, and jails. But solving the problem by giving homeless people housing only costs around $20,000.

Viable For Reno?

The City of Reno has recently introduced a plan to help the homeless population. In an article published by the Reno Gazette Journal, this program, called Reno Works, is giving 20 people from a Reno homeless shelter temporary jobs. This part-time work is designed to give homeless people a chance to get back on their feet. The program was approved by the Reno City Council on Aug. 26 and is to last 18 weeks.

However, Reno Works only serves 20 people; a small portion of the projected total of people who are living without homes. In a 2013 report by the Reno News and Review, it was estimated that around 869 homeless people lived in the Reno area. It is unknown if the number of homeless people has increased or decreased since then.

The only homeless shelter in Reno, run by Volunteers of America, can accommodate around 160 men, 50 women, and operates a 108-bed family shelter. The overflow shelter can only house 128. This still leaves around 400 people living on the streets.

One of the many closed and empty motels in Reno. Photo by Jose Olivares, Dec. 3.
One of the many closed and empty motels in Reno. Photo by Jose Olivares, Dec. 3.

The City has big plans to continue expanding and renovating Reno after discovering a $10 million surplus earlier this year. They are moving forward with plans to demolish abandoned weekly motels and other buildings downtown that are geographically close to casinos. However, critics see a different opportunity that can be taken with these buildings.

“We’ve got empty buildings all over the place, we’ve got empty lots all over the place, and we’ve got a homeless population that needs a place to go,” said Christopher Kloth. “It’s just a matter of the City being willing to do something like that.”

Kloth is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department of the University of Nevada, Reno. His thesis focuses on homelessness and housing. He hopes that Reno officials can follow Utah’s example and provide housing for the homeless.

However, Mitchell stated that there might be some barriers to achieving such a goal in Reno.

“Now, there are some big differences between Salt Lake City and Reno that need to be addressed,” said Mitchell. “Not the least of which is that there is a very moneyed and powerful interest in the form of casinos that lobby our city council.”

Mitchell suggests that passing legislation and funding programs like these could conflict with the casinos’ interests.

When asked about the prospect of a Housing First program in Reno, Councilman McKenzie expressed his doubts and stated that he would not likely support such a program.

With Reno’s unique economy and quickly changing nature, it is difficult to speculate on what the future holds for the homeless population. But one thing is clear: other cities are excelling and making great strides in housing their fellow houseless citizens.

Jose Olivares is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached on Twitter @jlosc9. A special thanks to Christopher Kloth and Jose Molina.

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